Directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, the movie probably shouldn't work at all. It alternates (not always elegantly) between six stories in six different genres, involves actors playing multiple roles, tests the limits of make-up artistry and tries to wrap things up with a cosmic bang that makes room for a string of woozy ideas about reincarnation, the connectedness of all life, the elasticity of boundaries and more.
By any measure, this lavishly conceived adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 novel should be breaking out in flop sweat before it hits the 30-minute mark. The fact that it doesn't stands as testimony to the skill, commitment and ambition of the Wachowskis (still best known for their Matrix movies) and to Tykwer, who made his biggest mark with Run Lola Run.
The most enjoyment I got out of Cloud Atlas involved trying to identify the various actors in their multiple guises as the movie fragmented into mini-hunks of narrative spread over a half-a-dozen settings and time periods -- from 1846 to a post-apocalyptic future.
The stories in Cloud Atlas are told by an aged tribesman named Zachry (Tom Hanks) and are presented as a massive campfire tale with mythic and spiritual overtones. All stories are one story -- or something to that effect. You can tell that the two Wachowskis and Tykwer are after something big, but Cloud Atlas seems to work best in small doses, as its many stories unfold.
A brutal comic high point arrives when Hanks (as the lower-class author of a book called Knuckle Sandwich) tosses an imperious British critic off the roof of a skyscraper during a book party.
In fairness to critics, I should point out that there probably are at least as many filmmakers worthy of such treatment as critics, but that's another story.
If you're unfamiliar with the book, a quick idea about a few of its stories. The tale involving the author of Knuckle Sandwich focuses on Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a publisher who gets crosswise with a brother who imprisons him in an institution for the aged.
There's even an appearance by the devil himself (Hugo Weaving), who tries to lure Zachry to the dark side by encouraging his baser instincts and by over-acting.
I won't recount all the stories, but will say that they seem intended to make a point that goes something like this: In the eternal recurrence of everything, reincarnated beings keep playing different roles in different dramas, all of which build toward last-minute escapes that, in this movie, can seem more corny than profound.
Speaking of profundity. The screenplay (also by the movie's directorial trio) takes a long time before advancing a variety of spiritual points that seem to have been sprinkled over the movie's dialog like fairy dust. I don't think it's possible to take them as seriously as the movie seems to want us to take them.
If I were going to be a little more arch about it, I'd say that thematically, Cloud Atlas is a bit like climbing the world's highest mountain in search of an ultimate truth only to find a Port A Potty at the summit. The reward isn't nearly as loft as you'd hoped, but why be arch? Could get you thrown off a roof.
The cast is large and, for the most part, effective. If you get bored, you can play a game called, Trying to Spot Hugh Grant, who in several scenes has been made to look nothing like himself.
You also can express gratitude to the movie gods that Halle Berry, in a variety of roles, seems to have subdued her instincts for overdoing things. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, but the rest of the cast includes Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy, Ben Whishaw, David Keith and many more actors of varying pay grades.
Credit Weaving for outdoing Louise Fletcher in a Nurse Ratched-like role, part of the segment in which Broadbent's publisher character (remember him?) is confined to an asylum.
Fans of the Matrix should be mollified by the ways in which the Wachowskis have created Neo-Seoul, the city in which the futuristic scenes of 2144 take place.
In a segment set in 1975, you can discover what Hanks looks like with blonde hair, not necessarily a revelation but a minor curiosity nonetheless.
Strictly in movie terms, the trio of talented directors messes up the pacing of the final scenes, which (at least to me) felt as if they should have concluded about 15 minutes before they actually did. But there's no denying the Wachowskis and Tykwer also whip up some magical images. If nothing else, the movie tends toward visual opulence, some of it expressed with wit.(See below).
So what the hell am I saying here? I guess I'm saying that there's plenty to enjoy in this over-stuffed cornucopia of a movie, but if you're looking for transcendent cinema, you may be disappointed. For all its ambition, Cloud Atlas -- like much of life -- is entertaining only in parts. Is it damning with faint praise to say that rather than stirring my emotions or elevating my consciousness, this extra-large helping of movie mostly amused me?